Hockey pundits around the world expected fireworks when the 30 current NHL teams released their protection lists earlier this week. Sometimes followers of particular franchises value certain players more than others, but for the most part, there was a general consensus regarding which player the Vegas Golden Knights would take from the Detroit Red Wings.
Then general manager Ken Holland did what he does best and threw a wrench into the whole operation.
The Red Wings weren’t supposed to be one of the teams that offered Vegas many odd options. Some wondered whether Holland would expose veterans like Mike Green, but those curiosities turned out to be misguided.
That’s because Holland decided to protect Jimmy Howard instead of Petr Mrazek. Up until the moment that choice became public knowledge, most assumed that Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would be the Golden Knights’ starter in 2017-18.
Holland’s wrench changed the complexion of the draft and left many wondering whether he made the right call.
Moreover, squads hoping to gain some cap relief while Vegas picked up one of their goalies were left wondering whether that’s the way things would unfold.
The motivations behind Detroit’s judgment of the two netminders aren’t particularly hard to trace. Mrazek was supposed to be the team’s starter in 2016-17, but failed to secure the job. And Michigan wasn’t the only battleground for the goalie.
The Czech national team benched him during May’s national championships, electing to start a Czech league goalie over the supposed NHL No. 1. Tack on the fact that Mrazek struggled to fight off Jared Coreau for the starting gig while Howard was out with an injury, and it’s not too difficult to see why Holland did what he did come protection time.
Make no bones about it: The NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. The promise of potential might fly in other markets, but the Red Wings want to be back in contention for a playoff spot this upcoming season. Holland doesn’t have two years to wait for Mrazek to blossom into the starter many thought he would be while he was a prospect.
This is where the tricky aspect of the situation comes into play, though. As many smart Red Wings analysts have pointed out, there’s virtually zero chance that the Golden Knights would have picked Howard over players like Tomas Nosek, Martin Frk, Ryan Sproul or even Jonathan Ericsson.
If the concern was that Vegas would take Howard instead of another exposed player, it’s absurd.
The veteran is 33 years old and carries a cap hit north of $5 million. Was he able to surprise beat writers in Detroit this season by fending off challenges from two younger goalies? Sure, but the net is where the Golden Knights have the most options.
Every team was allowed to protect only one netminder, meaning that somewhere around 30 NHL-caliber players at that position would be available. Knowing that players such as Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier and Steve Mason will be available as free agents, it’s easy to see where Holland went wrong.
Mrazek is the goalie with the most upside within the organization. Howard was great when he needed to be for the Red Wings this year, but they still weren’t remotely close to making the playoffs. That appears to be Holland’s goal for 2017-18, which is made more baffling by exposing a player who will very likely be taken instead of a veteran who would very likely be passed over.
The desire to win now is understandable, but this decision could hurt the Red Wings badly by this time next year. Howard isn’t going to improve on what he did in 2016-17. Mrazek undoubtedly will, and it’s the Golden Knights who will benefit.
If Holland knew he was going to leave Mrazek unprotected, why not try and move him for an asset ahead of the expansion draft? Even if Vegas doesn’t want him in town as a No. 1 or No. 2, the Knights could pick him up and trade him for draft picks, prospects or NHL-ready players.
All three of those options could have been worth considering for the Red Wings, and the choice to protect Howard over Mrazek is yet another knock against Holland and the way he does business.